AVSIM Commercial FS9/FSX AI Traffic Review

HeliTraffic 2009

Product Information

Publishers: Flight 1

Description: Helicopter AI traffic add-on utility.

Download Size:
2.18 MB

Format:
Download
Simulation Type:
FS9/FSX
Reviewed by: Alan Bradbury AVSIM Staff Reviewer - January 3, 2011

The problem

Helicopters might not be every flight simmer’s mount of choice, but regardless of whether you like choppers or not, it won’t have escaped your attention that FS doesn’t do a very good job of placing rotary-winged birds into our virtual airborne world. This is because the default flight modeling for AI aircraft in Flight Simulator can only handle fixed-wing aircraft in any sort of realistic fashion, so although you can theoretically have helicopters flying about in FS by default, they will be taking off and landing like a 747, which is hardly very realistic.

Now you may think that this lack of proper helicopter take offs and landings is not exactly going to break your heart if you only ever fly Cessnas or Boeings, but you might be surprised how much more believable your favourite scenery becomes once there are a few choppers using it alongside you. For example, if you’ve bought a fancy payware airport, it would be nice if the helipads at that airport were something more than just a big yellow circle with an H in the middle of it, wouldn’t it? So, even if you are not a dedicated FS rotorhead, you may still find yourself interested in what HeliTraffic 2009 can do for you.

The solution

Riding to the rescue with the sound of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries playing in the background, HeliTraffic 2009 offers itself up as the solution to the lack of realistic whirlybird participation in your Flight Simulator AI. It does this for both FS9 and FSX, so this adds a bit of value if, like me, you happen to still use both sim versions. What is more, unlike most add-ons which work in both recent versions of FS, it actually does a tiny bit more in the FS9 version than in the FSX incarnation. They aren’t much different to be fair, and we’ll get to what the difference actually is, but it’s a nice change to see FS9 getting the slightly better deal for once, considering how many people still use it.

HeliTraffic 2009 can do a great deal more than simply add AI choppers to your virtual world, although even simply doing that makes for a more interesting environment. Here, my trusty Captain Sim 707 taxies past a couple of choppers which are using some custom helipads I created on the apron at the default FSX EGCD. This kind of thing adds a bit of life to places which would otherwise be fairly devoid of traffic, so it’s a quick way to jazz-up default airport scenery, thus if you thought adding AI choppers wasn’t for you, you might be surprised at how it can liven things up on a boring taxi trip out to the runway.

The product

Unlike the cost of flying tons of real helicopters around, HeliTraffic 2009 won’t exactly break the bank with its 15.89 (Sterling) price tag, which translates as 24.99 in the Land of the Free, and ironically as 18.76 in the Land of the Not Quite So Free, i.e. Europe. For that price, you get a diminutive 2.18 Mb download file, which is the exe for both the FS9 and FSX versions and installs into both at the same time if you select the correct paths to the relevant FS folders. Not surprisingly, at that size, if you blink you’ll miss the installation process because it takes all of about two seconds to complete.

Don’t let the small size of the file fool you into thinking the product doesn’t do much however, nor be fooled by the ‘2009’ tag in the product name. HeliTraffic 2009 is the current version of this product in spite of its ill-advised choice of name with a date in it, and it does quite a lot of cool stuff, some of which might surprise you.

Upon installation, you will find a HeliTraffic 2009 sub section in the ‘Flight One Software’ Start Menu item on your PC, and in there you’ll find options to check for updates or uninstall the program, or to open the manual which is an eleven-page PDF. Currently, the version you can buy is v1.03, which is what was used in this review.

The PDF manual is functional rather than flashy, being simply a text document with a few pictures to illustrate how things work and where menus are to be found. It does the job well enough though, being comprehensive and clearly written so no complaints there, and at just eleven pages you might actually read this one all the way through!

The manual isn’t flashy, nor does it need to be, and at just eleven pages it doesn’t take too long to get through. If even an eleven page manual is too much for you, HeliTraffic is so simple to use that you won’t have to read past page three in order to get it filling your virtual skies with choppers. However, if you stop reading there, you might miss out on some of the other cool stuff HeliTraffic 2009 can do, as it is certainly no one trick pony.

The same, but different

Accessing all of HeliTraffic’s functions is done from within FS, a minor caveat being that one or two of these functions can only be accessed in windowed mode, but this is not a big deal since once you’ve done it you can pop straight back into full screen mode if you like.

Although the menu location is ever so slightly different whether in FS9 or FSX, both appear on the FS menu up near where FSUIPC is to be found when in the sim, so essentially they work in the same fashion for either version. The only functionality difference between the two versions of HeliTraffic is that the FS9 version will allow you to adjust the reference points for add-on helicopter configuration files to ensure choppers sit neatly on the ground.

You can save those adjustments in an extensible markup language file* too, which is stored in a HeliTraffic folder in your ‘My Documents’ folder. There is no equivalent function in the FSX version for tweaking ground reference points (although of course you could do so manually). Beyond that one tiny (albeit useful) tweaking difference, Helitraffic is functionally identical for both FSX and FS9.

* In case you are wondering what the hell Extensible Markup Language (XML) is, if you think of XML as being like the ‘Esperanto of the computer world’, i.e. it’s a language that lots of different computer programs can interpret and understand, then you’ve pretty much got what XML is. So you can write stuff to XML and use that to access functions of programs such as Flight Simulator.

On the subject of XML incidentally, it is interesting to note that HeliTraffic can save separate XML files for a number of similarly useful customizing options, such as saving custom traffic flights and custom helipad locations and that means you can send your customized helicoptering efforts to friends, or upload them to file libraries as scenery improvements.

Being written in XML as opposed to being a traffic BGL file like the regular AI traffic is, HeliTraffic AI doesn’t interfere with the main FS Traffic BGL file so your chopper traffic can be separately enabled via HeliTraffic from within the sim, which is a pretty cool feature.

For the purposes of this review, I tested Helitraffic 2009 alongside both the default FS traffic in FS9 and FSX as well as with Ultimate Traffic for FSX, and it presented no problems nor created any clashes which is not surprising since as noted, it works in a way entirely independent of the regular AI traffic function of FS. It also installed and uninstalled painlessly numerous times and worked flawlessly in numerous tests. So I can say with a fair degree of confidence that it’s an extremely robust bit of software which is unlikely to clash with anything else at all.

That gasoline smell

HeliTraffic 2009 is extremely simple to use. In fact, if all you want to do is add realistic chopper flights to your airports as eye candy then it really could not be any simpler if it tried; just click a couple of options in the very simple interface which you get to from the FS menus, wait for it to do a bit of a read of your files for a minute or so and then a simple click to ‘enable’ it and you are in business.

HeliTraffic 2009 will do all the rest of the work and you will then see whirlybirds using all of your airport helipads for both add-on and default scenery and choppers merrily making their way across your FS world at a typical altitude of around 3,000 feet or so. Subsequent boot ups of FS see this data whiz through and load in a second or two, so there’s no real difference on load times when HeliTraffic is installed. It’ll do stacks more stuff than this of course, but you could happily leave it at this point and never touch another menu again if all you wanted was choppers flying around as simple eye candy.

On the default settings, HeliTraffic will generate flights from one helipad to another helipad elsewhere in your FS world and depending on your menu choices, it will either do so randomly with any and all the helicopters you have installed or with just the ones you select as preferred choices.

This is quite an important point incidentally, since it will use any helicopter you have installed unless you say otherwise. Thus HeliTraffic 2009 could potentially impact frame rates in a serious manner given that some of the flashier helicopter add-ons are by no means low-polygon frame rate friendly affairs. With this potential pitfall in mind, HeliTraffic has a very handy FPS testing utility built into it which will display a user selectable number of incarnations of any add-on chopper you have, so you can make an assessment of how that particular chopper might impact frame rates. This is a really nice and thoughtful feature, although I’ll be honest, it never really seemed to be an issue with most of the choppers I have and pretty much all of those are quite complex payware ones from makers such as Cera and Nemeth.

You can use any and all helicopters you have installed in FS as AI choppers with HeliTraffic 2009 and the options panel allows you to pick which ones on the fly from within FS. You can further simplify the impact of HeliTraffic by having all AI choppers use the default Bell 206 flight model if you wish, although this will probably mean some of your faster choppers won’t be flying exactly as they should. It’s nice to have these choices, but I didn’t find this necessary to be honest, it all seemed to run okay without adversely affecting frame rates in spite of me using some flashy payware as AI, although see the main text for another potential issue.

In practice I found that leaving all my add-on choppers as potential AI candidates wasn’t really a big drag on frame rates but there is another thing to look out for in relation to high-polygon models. As with aircraft you fly yourself, if any chopper being used as AI suffers lag when the program is drawing its various components, it can start to do the ‘bouncing about trick’ which occurs when FS is running out of processing power.

Not many add-on choppers seemed to cause this as far as I could tell, but one which did seem prone to it was Nemeth’s UH-1H Huey. If you happen to be familiar with that one you will know it has something of a reputation of being a frame rate hog. Personally I don’t think it’s bad on FPS when flying it, but it quite evidently had the potential to cause visual anomalies when being used as an impromptu AI chopper in HeliTraffic 2009.

So, a minor issue, but there are ways to mitigate that with HeliTraffic. For example, you can simplify its flight model when being used as an AI aircraft via the HeliTraffic options which actually does tend to sort it out.

Nemeth’s payware choppers can be a bit heavy on frame rates in comparison to the default FS ones, notably the Nemeth UH-1H Huey you can see parked on the left. Nevertheless, in practice I didn’t find that having these and some other fancy payware choppers such as the Cera Bell 212 Twin Huey and the area 51 UH-1Y, seen parked on the right, too much of a drag on frame rates. The Nemeth MD 500 seen flying in this shot was perfectly controllable even with those other payware choppers parked nearby and acting as AI traffic. These parked choppers are in fact at custom helipads which I added to the apron at EGCD via HeliTraffic’s easy to use interface.

Spec ops

If you want to get more involved in how helicopters are depicted in FS and what they will do, then you might need to read the manual a bit more closely as it does take a bit of sussing out in order to get to grips with what is involved. The gist of it is, if you want to add a custom helipad anywhere in FS you can simply ‘slew’ to that location and HeliTraffic’s interface will let you assign your location as a new helipad.

If you want to go even further than that, adding custom flights at specific times and to specific destinations, you can do that too with HeliTraffic 2009 (that’s the bit you might have to read up on). So, if you have an overwhelming urge to model tons of US Army helicopters on training flights around Fort Rucker or to replicate the iconic attack sequence from Apocalypse Now, then it certainly is possible to create that kind of thing via custom helipads and designated waypoints of the routes your choppers will fly.

Adding your own helipads is a simple as slewing to a location and choosing a few options. The fact that you can alter the altitude of these custom helipads means it is easy to add AI helipads to the tops of buildings too, so if you want AI choppers whizzing from rooftop to rooftop in New York, it’s a simple task to make that happen.
Here you can see Area 51’s payware UH-1Y Venom landing on the roof of the Radisson SAS hotel that is part of UK2000’s payware Manchester Extreme airport scenery. It was a simple matter of hovering over the place where I wanted the helipad to be, choosing the option to add a custom helipad from the FS menu, and then typing in a name. Although I did get the skids of my MD 500 down to the rooftop when creating the helipad, you don’t actually have to land to create one of these, since it is possible to type in the altitude of the helipad you are creating even when hovering well above it. The Venom you can see landing was in fact on an AI flight when I called up the HeliTraffic map, right clicked on the blip for him and ordered him to fly to that helipad, which is another cool thing HeliTraffic will let you do.

You have control

Amongst the other fun stuff you find in HeliTraffic 2009, is a top down radar map with its orientation matching your own aircraft’s heading. As you might expect, this shows the location of all the chopper traffic which surrounds you although it also shows you the location of any helipads as well. This is a fairly useful feature, but this little map does a lot more than that, in fact it is actually quite a cool thing to play with.

Hovering your mouse over a blip on the map will tell you about any chopper and where it is going, but the really fun part is if you right click on any of those blips you get a fly out menu which allows you to order the AI choppers to do various things; you can command them to depart from a helipad immediately, force them to wait at their present location, or order them to travel to any destination you like!

This is really rather cool, because it means that you could simulate military command missions with it by ordering choppers all over the place, especially since you can add a helipad anywhere you like. So if you ever fancied pretending to be Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, well now is your chance.

Taxiing out for take off in my shiny Diamond Twinstar, I’ve called up the HeliTraffic 2009 radar map, zoomed in and hovered my mouse over the nearest blip, which happens to be the enormous freeware MiL-26 heavy transport helicopter you can seeking poking its tail into the picture from the left. The map tells me he will eventually depart on a randomly generated flight and the helipad he is at is one I have added myself on the apron at EGCD, with the default Bell 206 in the background on a similarly custom helipad.
In this shot I have right-clicked on the blip which represents the nearby MiL-26 helicopter and I’m ordering it to fly to EGOV. If I then select the ‘Force departure’ option, the chopper will abandon the timed wait for a randomly-generated flight and instead immediately fly to where I have told it to go. This kind of capability means it is possible to command a squadron of helicopters and get them to fly wherever you like. Anyone who likes simulating military operations in FS will really like this feature of HeliTraffic 2009.

Your flexible friend

So, you can use HeliTraffic 2009 as a simple ‘make choppers fly realistically as AI in my FS world and do it all for me type of utility, which takes mere seconds to set up, or you can go nuts with the thing and create custom flight routes at any altitude you choose, to and from anywhere in the FS world including the rooftops of buildings if you designate these as helipads or even order choppers around on the fly in real time.

This means it is an extremely flexible product in how you decide what you want to use it for. It’s also great fun and very easy to operate with a simple and clear interface. FPS impact seems to be minimal unless you go completely over the top with adding stuff and even if you want to do that, there are several ways to lessen its impact.

Rotary canon

If you’ve been reading along, by now you should have an idea whether the rotary-winged realism HeliTraffic 2009 can bring to your AI is something you think might be worth having.

Should you simply want realistically-depicted choppers flying about your FS world using your scenery’s helipads, then you will have to decide whether you want that badly enough to pay fifteen quid for the privilege. This probably would be the case if you like flying around London, New York, Los Angeles or anywhere else that sees choppers whizzing about a fair bit, such as the Grand Canyon perhaps.

There is certainly no doubt it could add a lot of realism to something like the wilderness scenery from companies such as Orbx, where choppers are likely to be flying around a lot. But if you only ever fly airliners and can live without seeing the odd distant chopper depart from the helipad at your fancy payware Heathrow, then you could probably live without it and might not appreciate another potential drain on frame rates.

If on the other hand you like creating missions and adding really serious chopper stuff, then it certainly could be regarded as a must have. So in short, its value depends on what you value as important in FS, as well as how many frames per second you have to spare and where you fly.

Personally, I’m quite into choppers in FS having bought quite a lot of them and being a sucker for anyone who brings out a Huey model as you can probably gather from these screenshots, so for me it is a worthwhile addition. As such, I think it’s a great little add-on and I have it enabled all the time now in my FS, but if you don’t really care that much about choppers you will doubtless prefer to leave it for the rotorheads. Although you might be surprised at what a kick it is to see even the default Bell JetRanger departing from your otherwise lifeless helipad as you run through the FMC check on your airliner.

So, I do recommend HeliTraffic 2009 because it’s an excellent little piece of software, but ultimately it’s up to you whether you think it is worth the price of admission.

 

What I Like About HeliTraffic 2009

  • It’s quick to download and install, easy to use, with a decent manual that explains it all thoroughly for those who might want to use its more advanced features.
  • Thanks to the XML format, you can easily trade your flights and custom helipads with other users and the files which carry this information are extremely compact, so that’s a good feature where online file libraries are concerned.
  • It’s pretty good value considering the fact that it works with both FSX and FS9 and is only fifteen quid.
  • There are some nice touches, such as the ability to test frame rate impact and the ability to tweak chopper models to improve performance.
  • It’s relatively easy to create custom flights and extremely easy to add custom helipads.
  • It adds some interesting capabilities to FS, which have the potential to make for a lot of fun if choppers are your thing.
  • The ability to command AI choppers directly is something that is really good fun and can potentially make FS very much more capable if you like to simulate military operations.

 

What I Don't Like About HeliTraffic 2009

  • They should drop the ‘2009’ bit from the name, as it makes it sound like last years’ model, and I can assure you that it is not.

 

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